by William Shakespeare
produced by Shakespeare Theatre
directed by David Muse
reviewed by Tim Treanor
All rise; court is now in session. We turn to The Matter of the All-Male Romeo and Juliet, and immediately address the question on everyone’s mind: does the Shakespeare’s admitted act of gender discrimination enhance our understanding of this classic play, or, through the play, of the world? The answer is complicated, but the bottom line is that it does not.
At the outset, we must concede that an all-male Romeo and Juliet is less radical an alteration of current practice than it might otherwise seem. It is less radical than an all-male version of The Women, or an all-male Little Women, or even an all-male Women of Brewster Place. It is certainly less of a leap than the all-female Romeo and Juliet Taffety Punk will lay on the table later this week. There are only four female roles in the whole play: Lady Montague, who has but a few lines (Jeffrey Kuhn does very nice work with them); Lady Capulet (Tom Beckett, a little to Monty Pythonish for me here), who is frequently played as an older woman though a close reading of the text puts her age at the mid-twenties; the Nurse (Drew Eshelman), generally, as here, played as an androgynous crone; and Juliet.
Juliet, you will recall, is not simply a woman; she is everything men are to hope for from women: beautiful, serene, wise, stuffed with sweet phrases, full of welcoming joy, generous of spirit – and she loves you, forlorn Romeo, and welcomes your masculine embrace as a luffing sail welcomes the breeze. More than that, she is merely thirteen years old, and needs to be rescued from her unthinking, insensitive parents who would otherwise force her to marry a buffoon.
To play this iconic woman-child, Shakespeare Theatre presents a six-foot-one, twenty-three year old man, James Davis. Davis is obviously an actor of considerable skill, and he does about as well as anyone could be expected to do, given his body’s limitations. He uses a pleasant alto voice throughout most of the production, and, with expert costuming (Jennifer Moeller) and makeup (uncredited) he has transformed himself into an attractive thirty-year-old woman. But it is not enough. When Juliet is excited, Davis uses expansive, powerful gestures which do not bring a 16th-century, 13-year-old girl to mind. When she is angry or frustrated, Davis’ voice drops an octave, and what comes out is startlingly harsh and masculine. The enterprise puts me in mind of the old Samuel Johnson saw about female ministers: like the dancing bears, the wonder is not how well they do it but that they do it at all. (For the record, Dr. Johnson was wrong about the ministers, but right about the bears.)
So, Dr. Johnson, why cast men in the women’s roles at all? (Of course, in Shakespeare’s time women’s roles were played by prepubescent boys. But so what? The stage was lit by guttering torches, too, and no one proposes to bring back that tradition.) Director David Muse, in an interesting interview on the Shakespeare Theatre’s website, observes that both Romeo and Juliet act in ways contrary to the time’s gender roles – Juliet is bold and decisive, while Romeo plays the peacemaker. Muse says that he hopes to push boundaries the way that Shakespeare did.
But Shakespeare’s text makes it clear that Juliet is bold, and Romeo is a peacemaker because circumstances force those choices on them – a point Muse reinforces in this production. Juliet is not naturally bold, but rather a mistress of the ambiguous statement. (When her mother brightly inquires about her inclinations toward an immediate marriage, she responds “it is an honor that I dream not of.“) She marries Romeo to avoid a forced marriage with the execrable Paris (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), and later drinks a potion designed to make her appear dead in order to avoid it a second time. This is not boldness, it is desperation. As for Romeo (Finn Wittrock), his single, wildly unsuccessful, attempt at peacemaking is an effort to prevent his increasingly manic drinking buddy Mercutio (Aubrey Deeker) from slicing and dicing Juliet’s disagreeable cousin Tybalt (Cody Nickell). Romeo did not need to consult his feminine side to understand that the slaughter of Juliet’s cousin would cast a pall over what would have been an already-controversial announcement of a marriage between the members of opposing sides of a centuries-old two-family dispute.
What is frustrating to me is that Shakespeare Theatre’s dancing bear is a distraction from what is otherwise a smooth, lucid production of a wonderful play. I did not much like Scott Bradley’s beautiful, gargantuan set, in which Juliet declaimed from, not a balcony, but an immense porch about eighteen feet above Romeo’s head. But it is otherwise pretty swell. You know the story, but let me run through it, so that I can point out the great actors in this production. Romeo Montague, in mourning for his failed love affair with Rosalind (he has apparently driven her to chastity), allows his friends Mercutio and Benvolio (Henry Point-Du Jour) to persuade him to go in disguise to a party being given by Lord Capulet (Dan Kremer), whose family has an ancient enmity to his own. Capulet soon spots him, and reacts indulgently, but his nephew Tybalt combusts at the insult, and stalks off to challenge Romeo to a duel. In the meantime, Romeo meets Juliet, who is actively looking for a way to get out of Count Paris’ clutches. He falls in love; he is mad for her; he must have her. She consents, and he scurries away to Friar Lawrence (Ted van Griethuysen) to arrange for the formalities. He sends for Juliet through her nurse, and the two of them are hitched amongst the candles in Friar Lawrence’s cell. But things are not settled with Tybalt, who stalks down Romeo; when Romeo refuses to fight him, Mercutio steps in. In this production, Mercutio is clearly Tybalt’s superior as a swordsman, and Romeo’s intervention is necessary to prevent a possible evisceration. Tybalt takes advantage of Romeo’s interference to finish Mercutio off, and Romeo, as enraged at himself as at Tybalt, then kills Juliet’s cousin. In this production, Romeo accomplishes Tybalt’s death in a manner which places greater moral responsibility on him than is usually done. It is consistent with the text, though, and provocative as well. Thereafter, there are recriminations, banishments, feigned suicides, real suicides, and regrets.
Shakespeare Theatre being Shakespeare Theatre, this is all done with great facility. There are a couple of performances which exceed even the company’s usual high standards. Deeker is a marvelous Mercutio, all snap and dazzle, twitchy and desperate. Mercutio is one of the most difficult Shakespearean characters to get a handle on (“He fights by the book of arithmetic” – what the hell does that mean?) but Deeker’s interpretation is plausible and sympathetic. van Griethuysen’s Friar is like a complex old wine, full of twinkling lights and heavy moments. I also liked Kremer’s Capulet. In his interview, Muse said that he imagined the Capulets as being “new money”, and Kremer’s Capulet possesses the single-mindedness characteristic of successful capitalists. When he learns that Juliet is unwilling to marry Paris, he seems to talk himself into a fierce, out-of-control rage, eventually turning into the hound who will harry his daughter to the alter, whether she wants to go or not. And it is no diminishment of the other fine actors in significant roles to point out the exquisite performance of Jeffrey Kuhn in a series of smaller roles, including an uncredited one as an illiterate servant. Finally, Matthew Carlson, Dan Crane, and Christopher Ryan Grant play some fabulous music, designed by the Broken Chord Collective.
So the verdict? Guilty of a production which emphasizes the company’s virtuosity at the expense of the glory of a great play. The punishment? Well, not banishment, which would be more injurious to the audience than to the company. Just the knowledge that, for once in its life, Shakespeare Theatre could have done better.
Running Time: 2:45 minutes, with one intermission.
When: Tuesdays through Sundays until October 12. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are at 7.30 p.m.; all other evening shows are at 8. There are also Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. No shows on September 16, 18, 24 and 30; no evening show on October 12. There will be a matinee at noon on Wednesday, October 8.
Where: Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington.
Tickets: $23.50 to $79.75. Call 877.487.8849 oron the website.